January 6, 2003
Chance of Better Days for Central California's Asphalt Artery
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Photo: Peter DaSilva
FAIRMEAD, Calif. — Somewhere around the Mammoth Orange, a ramshackle orange-shaped burger stand that is the lone survivor of hundreds that dotted California roadsides in the 1950's, the two faces of Highway 99 merge.
There is the wildly unromantic back-alley 99, a blur of cellphone towers, salvage yards, used car lots, strip malls and phosphorescent billboards for personal injury lawyers.
But there is another 99, found fleetingly in places like Selma ("The Raisin Capital of the World"), Fairmead ("Elev: 246") and even rapidly growing cities like Fresno. It is the 99 of early March, when peach and almond blossoms burst forth by the thousands on every tree, and of late September, when it is possible to roll down the windows and smell grapes drying into raisins.
"Not a single peach, raisin or nectarine leaves here without journeying along Highway 99," said David Mas Masumoto, a writer and organic farmer who grows peaches and raisin grapes outside Fresno. "It's our conduit, the Mississippi of the Central Valley in asphalt."
The 250-mile stretch of Highway 99 that slices through about 30 communities in eight counties, from just south of Bakersfield to Sacramento, is the main economic and transportation artery for California's agricultural heartland, though its significance has long been obscured by its scabbiness and severe lack of escapist appeal. Route 66 it's not.
Yet this unheralded historic highway, pipeline for migrants and Bay Area commuters as well as almonds, pistachios, grapes, cotton, walnuts, Roma tomatoes, strawberries and potatoes, may have its moment yet. It is, after all, the Main Street of the Central Valley, where the pastoral landscape is fading, development is spreading with weedlike intensity, and profound demographic and political changes are shifting the state's balance of power inland.
"Highway 99 is where the population growth is," said Dr. Kevin Starr, a historian and the state librarian. "It's the spine of the next California."
This impending transformation has mayors, former mayors, civic leaders, business owners, people at nonprofit groups and assorted interested residents rethinking a highway that many had never given much thought to before.
It is a road that inspires a singular passion among some residents.
"It's fittingly ugly," said C. G. Hanzlicek, a Fresno poet (yes, there is a Fresno school of poetry). "It's a thunka thunka thunka highway, a working-class highway. It should be a little rough and tumble. It fits the severity of the landscape. Even the shoulders are grim."
The California state transportation authority, or Caltrans, is planning to smooth the rough edges with $1.2 billion in improvements for 99, perhaps best known for the notorious winter fog that envelops it.
What remains of the highway's distinctive rural heritage and character, meanwhile — flashes of beauty forming flickering windshield images amid debris — is finally being recognized.
This month, Scenic America, a national nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that champions distinctive vistas, will designate Highway 99 in the Central Valley one of the country's 10 most endangered landscapes, prompted largely by agricultural land giving way to Bed Bath and Beyonds.
For the same reasons, the Great Valley Center, a nonprofit research organization in Modesto, is spearheading new efforts to spruce up 99, including erecting roadside signs identifying crops and drafting model ordinances to control billboards.
The center is being joined in Fresno County by the Association for the Beautification of 99, a group of four cities along a 32-mile stretch of the highway that have banded together to create a zoning district. Still being planned, the district would require businesses to pay attention to appearances: erecting walls to block views of junkyards, for example.
Growth has already transformed the Central Valley, which includes some of the country's most impoverished and environmentally degraded areas. From 1996 to 1998, the San Joaquin Valley, the southern part of the Central Valley, led the state in the conversion of irrigated farmland to urbanization, with eight of the state's top 10 counties experiencing loss, according to the Great Valley Center.
High housing prices in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles have helped to make the San Joaquin Valley, along with Riverside County, the fastest-growing region of California, the latest census shows. By 2020, it is projected to grow by 52 percent, to five million, most of it along the Highway 99 corridor.
Andrew Arnold, 40, sees the changes firsthand as he commutes from his Mediterranean-style house with a pool in Canterbury, a new subdivision on former vineyards in Turlock, to his job as a manager for a division of John Deere in Lathrop, an 80-mile round trip. "You see the ebb and flow of agriculture, the farmers' decisions to sell, the shopping centers in almond orchards," said Mr. Arnold, who grew up in Modesto. "There's a dynamic that gets played out almost daily as you drive."
The Central Valley's newfound status comes with a steep price: Many Valley towns have chronic housing shortages. Persistent double-digit unemployment reflects the seasonal nature of farm labor. The Valley now rivals Los Angeles for the worst air quality in the nation, in addition to pesticide-contaminated rivers, streams and drainage canals, waste runoff from dairies and feedlots, and vanishing wetlands, including vernal pools at the base of the Sierras that are considered critical plant and animal habitats.
Nevertheless, those seeking the authentic soul of California could do worse than to pull off 99 at Selma, where this year's raisin glut seemed to fill the fragrant loaves at Dino's Bakery, or Kingsburg, founded by Swedish immigrants in the late 1800's, where breakfast includes Swedish pancakes with lingonberry sauce and shoppers are serenaded by Swedish music.
Nowhere is the "next" California more anticipated by some than in Merced County, where nearly 22 percent of families live below the poverty level, and winter unemployment is 11 percent to 18 percent. In the fall, ground was broken for the 10th campus of the University of California, the first since 1965, scheduled to open in 2004 with an eventual enrollment of 25,000. Today, downtown Merced is a place of hipness-in-waiting, where immigrants push ice cream carts past somnolent storefronts while a new Internet cafe serves an espresso drink called "the Hway 99."
The present-day highway, which bears about 50 percent more traffic than Interstate 5 and carries about 24,000 trucks a day, parallels and has subsumed portions of the original 99, a 20-foot-wide strip of pavement that connected small towns like Earlimart, Pixley, Tipton and Tulare. The towns were established in the late 19th century along the tracks of Central Pacific railroad.
The current highway, which still has fearsome cross-traffic in places, was built in stages from 1955 to 1997. The bright promise of postwar California is embodied in the spherical, now embattled Mammoth Orange — not to be confused with the vanished Giant Orange or Whoa-Boy Orange — the last relic of the era when motorists parched from long drives with no air-conditioning could stop for burgers and fresh-squeezed orange juice every 22 miles.
The Orange is in limbo, its highway access threatened by a proposed interchange. The "plight of the Orange" has been the subject of impassioned editorials in The Fresno Bee, and Representative George P. Radanovich has taken up its cause as a cultural landmark.
"It's beat up," said Doris Stiggins, the Orange's owner. "It's old. And people love it."
And so it is with Highway 99. A coalition led by Carol Whiteside, the former mayor of Modesto and president of the Great Valley Center, has formed to protect open space, control blight and lobby for federal highway scenic enhancement money.
Among the 99ers is Pete Bakker, a Modesto businessman, who became so disgusted with highway litter that he took a dump truck full of fliers plucked from 99 and elsewhere and dumped it at City Hall. He is financing a new $250,000 "Welcome to Modesto" arch for the freeway off-ramp. "We look like a hickville, to put it bluntly," Mr. Bakker said, echoing the grand tradition of highway boosters past.
Ms. Whiteside said one goal was to influence Caltrans' master plan to take into account the regions' nuances; for instance, "getting Caltrans to open up vistas so that when you cross a bridge you can actually see a river." Kiosks for travelers and roadside farmers markets are also being discussed.
"People don't value what they're sitting in the middle of," she said. "Paying attention will cause some things to change.'